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Now, It’s All or Nothing

When my wife and I were dating, we sometimes attended the local symphony. My budget permitted only second-balcony seats, but it didn’t matter. We enjoyed the music even though we hardly could see the musicians.

San Diego then being a Navy town, it was the custom for each performance to begin with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I sang along with some vigor if not with any skill. My wife joked that this was my favorite part of the concert. In her native country, patriotic displays were rare. Flags occasionally were flown outside government buildings but not outside private homes, and neither sporting events nor concerts opened with the national anthem.

As the years passed I became disappointed with where America was going and where it already had gone, but my patriotic feelings did not ebb. Patriotism is not “ebbable.” It is not dependent on whether one’s country maintains high civic, ethical, or moral standards. It has nothing to do with the claim that one’s country is the “best” in the world, whatever that might mean. Patriotism is loving one’s country simply because it is one’s country, no matter where it may fall on a worst-to-best scale.

Patriotism is not “My country, right or wrong.” That attitude is associated with nationalism, not patriotism, and, as Chesterton remarked, it’s as foolish as saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.” We ought to love our mothers, even when they are not sober, but we don’t love them for their insobriety but in spite of it. So with our country. We ought to love it whether it is in ascendency or, as now, in decline—and, if it is in decline, that love should manifest itself in efforts to reverse the decline.

In recent years many groups, seeing the disarray around us, have taken up the question most famously posed by Lenin—”What is to be done?”—and have issued position papers. Two well-known examples are Evangelicals and Catholics Together, drafted in 1994, and the Manhattan Declaration, drafted last year. The former sought to explain how Catholics and Evangelicals could cooperate in the civic sphere despite theological differences, while the latter added the Eastern Orthodox to the mix and took a more resolutely God-versus-Caesar approach with respect to what Catholic Answers has dubbed the “five non-negotiables” (a phrase now widely in use).

While there is much to applaud in such documents, at most they offer a holding action: “here but no further.” To halt further decline would be good, but that would leave us with abortion, euthanasia, homosexual “marriage,” and the rest. What these ecumenical statements, by their nature, can’t propose is the one solution that can reform our culture from the ground up, as it reformed it when Western civilization collapsed a millennium and a half ago: the fullness of the Catholic faith. A “mere Christianity” approach won’t work because “mere Christianity” is partial Christianity, with key moral, spiritual, and structural issues off the table. (Example: You can’t get rid of abortion permanently unless you get rid of contraception. As Pope Paul VI insisted, the one is the logical result of the other. Only the Catholic Church has a rooted opposition to contraception. Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy do not.)

Don’t misread me. I acknowledge that common-ground statements can be useful, but by their nature they can’t offer their readers the only solution that will turn society around, the Catholic faith. If our civilizational decline were not so deep—if we morally were still in 1950, so to speak—we could muddle through with a partial solution, but things have gone too far. A thoroughgoing collapse requires a thoroughgoing solution. It requires the fullness of the Christian faith, and that is found in only one place.

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